In American culture, sun glasses are usually linked with the warm, sunny days of summer. It seems counter-intuitive to wear them during the cold days of winter, when the sun is farther away and setting earlier. But that same sun, though it’s farther away from earth and giving less warmth, is still a danger to eyesight.
During the winter months, the sun sits lower in the sky and at different angles. For many, this means the sun could be shining directly through the car’s windshield during the morning commute when it hadn’t been before. Later sunrises and earlier sunsets means the sun spends more time at eye level than the rest of the year.
An added danger to eyesight during the winter months is the snow-covered terrain. Pure-white snow is highly reflective, putting more UV rays from the sun at eye level. The term “snow blindness” was coined for those that suffered from over-exposure to UV rays (also called photokeratitis) as a result of living in snow-covered landscapes without proper protection.
Snow blindness is essentially a sunburn on the eye’s cornea and can lead to many disorienting side effects like headache, blurred vision, pain in the eye, and temporary vision loss. Symptoms can include watery eyes, swollen red eyelids, and sensitivity to light, and the feeling that there is something the eye that cannot be removed. Vision loss from photokeratitis normally lasts for 48 hours, but severe cases could last up to a week.
These symptoms often don’t occur until after the cornea has already been damaged and the treatment usually involves rest away from UV rays. During this time, those suffering from snow blindness cannot wear contacts, use pain-relieving drops, or even rub their eyes. The best way to avoid pain and discomfort (and prevent having to stay home for a week) is to use preventative measures on a daily basis.
Most drivers know to wear sunglasses when behind the wheel in the winter months. But any exposure can prove to have negative effects. Health officials suggest wearing sunglasses that block out 100% of UV rays whenever spending three hours or more outside during the winter months. When participating in winter sport activities, use wrap-around sunglasses with photochromic lenses. This includes days when the sky is cloudy or overcast.
Certain medications would also increase the chances that photokeratitis could occur. Those on medications such as birth control, sulfa antibiotics, diuretics, and tranquilizers could see sunburn of the cornea happening in a shorter time period.
While the winter months are categorized by remaining indoors for a longer period of time, eye protection is still crucial. The next time the family hits the backyard for that epic snowball fight or the kids decide to go sledding, make sure everyone puts on sunglasses with their coats and mittens. Not only will it lessen the discomfort of that snowball to the face, it’ll keep everyone’s eyes safe from the dangers they can’t see.